Compared to what?

The Pakistani affiliate of the International Herald Tribune has a great summary run down of recent drone strikes under the Obama administration.  http://tribune.com.pk/story/391839/unmanned-war-on-terror-no-longer-a-covert-war/ It details strike after strike against militants that are operating freely in Waziristan and the tribal areas.  It also produces a summary statistic of civilian casualties which, even if taken at face value, seems to indicate that these strikes exhibit a very high degree of proportionality and discrimination.

I’m out here in San Francisco and I sometimes get some troubled reactions when I tell people that I led a drone unit when I was in the Army.  Eventually telling  these people that my drones were not armed quiets them down, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how drones are different and similar from other types of war.  Drones unfortunately have some misperceptions about how they compare to other types of military engagements.

I would like us each to sit in the chair of senior commander or official who has just received intelligence from multiple sources (as it seems these strikes are probably based on) that is really good, but not 100% certain.  There is a militant–who the Pakistanis allow to travel, train, and organize unmolested–who is intent on killing not only U.S. soldiers, but also our civilian allies and females who dare to leave the home to get an education.  He believes that it is his god-given moral imperative to kill all these people.  What would you do?

A)  Nothing

B)  Ask the Pakistanis who have been arming this guy to arrest him

C)  A drone strike

D)  A manned aircraft strike

E)  A commando or sniper raid

Okay, even Marines get this one: when in doubt, Charlie out.  Seriously though, C is the only ethical choice.

Doing nothing means that you have let an evil, violent man go about his plans to kill someone’s son or daughter because he or she believed in a world where everyone has the freedom to make something of themselves.  By the same token, B is even worse, because now you’ve not only let him go free, you’re endangering your sources and methods of finding him in the first place by telling the Pakistanis what you know.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is every probability that any method besides a drone attack would be worse when measured by the standard of proportionality and discrimination.  Drones usually strike using the smallest guided air to ground missile in the U.S. arsenal, meaning they tend not to cause more damage than is absolutely necessary to destroy valid military target.  Would a commando team be as precise?  What if the team itself was attacked by our Pakistani ‘allies?’  Could it or a manned plane follow the target and wait until this small missile was the appropriate munition to use to ensure the destruction of the target?  The answer is no, they could not.

Of most concern to all of us who treasure innocent life is the principle of discrimination which means that you are only attacking legitimate targets.  Although this is where drone are most criticized, this is where they beat all other methods of apply force.  Can you imagine any other weapon so precisely attacking only legitimate targets?  There is no other weapon system where every action of the user is recorded, second guessed, and subject to real time absolute supervision by higher authorities.  Once a pilot is over a target his judgment of the scene and need to protect himself while completing the mission takes precedence over a second guessing boss back at base–and rightly so.  Even more so with a commando team, the commander of that mission has complete autonomy and discretion once his forces are committed.

But let’s be clear, commandos and pilots make more mistakes, not less, by being on scene.  They are affected by all kinds of pressures, are in mortal danger, and are being asked to make snap judgments on their own.  They screw-up.  They drop bombs on the wrong house–or even the wrong army.  Snipers in over-watch shoot civilians all the time–they don’t mean to, they just do.  None of these things are war crimes, they are just mistakes–unacceptable tragedies–but still just mistakes not crimes.  I think that most of us, civilian or military accept this.

Drone operators on the other hand work in secure locations, can loiter over their target, and stalk him for days or weeks until they get a clean shot.  They even have lawyers looking over their video feed as they work!  These are carefully supervised, deliberate operations.  That said, this is still war, where even professionals make mortal mistakes with the best information available.  But even or especially in war, we must do our best to protect those principles we hold dear and every analysis says that drones are the most moral option.  To those who would say that drones are immoral, I would ask in comparison to what?

 

It is well that war is so terrible–otherwise we would grow too fond of it.  -Robert E. Lee

About Robert Morris
A robotics businessman working to make the economy more human.

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